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Ethical Issues in Social Inquiry: the Enemy Within? Roger Penn and Keith Soothill Lancaster University.

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Presentation on theme: "Ethical Issues in Social Inquiry: the Enemy Within? Roger Penn and Keith Soothill Lancaster University."— Presentation transcript:

1 Ethical Issues in Social Inquiry: the Enemy Within? Roger Penn and Keith Soothill Lancaster University


3 The Ethical Turn There is an accelerating tendency to introduce ethical issues into all areas of social science. We consider this to be misguided and misplaced Indeed we believe this ethical agenda is a deliberate attempt to neuter proper social scientific inquiry

4 The Ethical Movement We are not trying to say that social science has no ethical dimension: rather the opposite. Social science is inherently ethical and political: however these are contested terrains The new ethics movement is designed to remove professional judgments and replace these with bureaucratic codified regimented rules This involves a systemic de-professionalization and the substitution of low-trust relations for the previous high- trust professional autonomy

5 Why this Development Now? There is very little external concern about the ethical problems in social science No obvious scandals [nothing like the Milgram experiments or the Tearoom Trade or Pygmalion in the Classroom in the USA] Indeed the opposite is true: social scientists are making little impact on the social world in ways that would upset those in power

6 A Changing World: 3 Elements in the Ethical Turn American Hegemony: there is strong evidence that US templates are being copied in Britain* New Labour authoritarianism: the Faustian compact. Natural Science Paradigm: attack on hermeneutic developments over the last 40 years.

7 US Hegemony US Universities have Institutional Review Boards that review all research that involves human subjects [this is a clear extension of the medical model]. No research can be done without the formal agreement of these boards: this has led to a lack of primary research and an emphasis on safe secondary analyses. Extended to Canada and Australia. Britain next? The globalization of McEthics?!

8 New Labour Project New Labour has greatly extended the research arm of Government. During RPs participation in the Skills Task Force between 1998 and 2000 he saw how political considerations determined a great deal of the research agenda and how results were massaged [see Penn,1999a and 1999b]. Research in the fields of health, education and employment now follows a safe ethical path: one central plank of the new ethical protocols are that sponsors should not be upset.

9 Natural Science Paradigm Lurking behind much of the new ethicalization of research is the natural science medical model. Review of all medical research by an appropriate research ethics committee is now de rigueur. Enshrined in the World Medical Associations declaration of Helsinki, 1964.

10 Natural Science Paradigm 2 In 2005 the UKs Chief Scientific Adviser convened a working group that developed a universal ethical code for scientists under the auspices of the Council for Science and Technology. This clearly assumed that one coat fits all sciences.

11 The Medical Model Probed The medical model was set up to deal with issues specific to medical trials. These centre on the use of patients in double-blind experiments [these are experiments where neither patient nor Dr know who takes the trial drug or the placebo]*

12 The Medical Model Probed 2 Such ethical controls derive from the history of medicine itself and the need to test drugs on humans. They centre on the need to protect patients [patient vulnerability]. We believe that much recent development in the ethics industry in social science involves reducing respondents to patients

13 Problems with the Medical Model The erection of these bureaucratic controls within the medical sphere has led to a series of negative consequences that should cause alarm bells within the social sciences. A template to be avoided!

14 Problems with the Medical Model 2 The forms to be completed are enormous, confusing and off-putting. They are designed to restrict research opportunities to insiders. There is a requirement to have the approval of a statistician for all proposals irrespective of the actual use of statistics* Issues of research design have been subsumed under the aegis of ethics.

15 Problems with the Medical Model 3 Contemporary patient care is supposed to be evidence-based. However, in practice, any attempt to develop new evidence-based practice has to receive prior approval by the appropriate Ethics and also R&D Governance Committees. There is a great deal of confusion about what is scientific and what is ethical.

16 A Paradox The net effect has been to drive much medical research that has a social scientific angle underground. Practitioners now take an audit route that avoids the aggravation of dealing with ethics committees. The pharmaceutical companies also provide grants to fund small projects that evade scrutiny.

17 Dangers for Social Science Stifling of innovative, creative research. Conflation of ethics with design. Conversion of respondents into patients Development of an insider culture designed to suppress research innovation.

18 Social Science Ethics Examined ESRC: research should not cause distress or annoyance. Why? There are a range of circumstances where the results of research may well annoy respondents or funders. Examples: Skills Task Force: RP concluded that skills shortages were inevitable and desirable features of advanced economies and that much previous research into labour market issues was worthless.

19 Social Science Ethics Examined 2 This upset the Department of Employment who tried to suppress RPs report. It annoyed those research Centres in Universities that have a symbiotic and cosy relationship with the Department in terms of a cycle of grants and anodyne Reports. It angered consultancy firms who endlessly reported that every Government initiative was a great success.

20 And? GOOD!

21 Mealy-Mouthed Sentiments The BSA section on Professional Integrity in its Statement of Ethical Practice* argues that sociological research contributes to the well- being of society. This gets to the heart of the matter: who is able to or can possibly say what that is?? Sociologists? We hope not. This is akin to Platos injunction that Philosophers should rule. An elitist, undemocratic and plainly daft idea.

22 Ethics are Contested It is obvious that ethical debate and disagreement are central to every-day discourse. People disagree because they have different ethical principles. An example is arranged marriages: most autochthons in Britain disparage and denigrate them whilst many South Asians take a parallel view about love marriages.*

23 Ethics are Contested 2 Social Science is also based on enormous and profound disagreements about theories, methods and substantive issues. [see Hawthorn, 1976]* These cannot and should not be reduced to bureaucratic decisions made by self-appointed experts in closed committees. [NB most members of ethics panels have very restricted experience of actual research dilemmas]

24 Further Vacuity The Lancaster University Ethics Committee state that all proposed research should be worthwhile and that techniques should be appropriate!! Where have they been over recent years? There is enormous dissension over both these so-called principles. These cannot be resolved by bureaucratic fiat!

25 Contradictions These new ethical codes get themselves completely tied in knots when they examine issues of explanation of the research to potential respondents and over covert research Lancaster University Ethical gauleiters demand that researchers give a full explanation of the study. This is actually impossible prior to research and is also highly undesirable.

26 Contradictions 2 It is not good practice to tell respondents very much about the substantive issues under scrutiny. This is to avoid the Hawthorne effect and also to minimize response-biases [i.e. people telling researchers what they think they want to hear or behaving in ways affected by what they have been told].

27 Contradictions 3 The BSA came up with a nicer compromise. They suggest that respondents should receive appropriate details about prospective research. This must be to allow ethics committees to find something to pontificate upon: otherwise it is pure nonsense! These are matters for individual judgment and cannot be codified a priori.

28 Covert Research This is generally proscribed within these codes except when it is not! This Alice in Wonderland world of the ethics industry beggars belief. Covert research is a matter for judgment: RP used covert tape-recordings when researching recruitment policies of major supermarkets. This was justified in terms of the research hypotheses and this was enough.

29 The Law Researchers have to be aware of the legal ramifications of their research. None of the ethical codes deal with this explicitly but if they did they would not approve! Again we believe that this issue is a matter for professional judgment: when RP was comparing spectators in British and Italian football stadia he photographed the policing of games. This is illegal in Italy [so he did it from some distance to avoid arrest and the confiscation of his camera].

30 The Future? THE NIGHTMARE: Ethics Committees come to dominate and stifle innovative social science research. Under the pretext of ethics, social science becomes safe and averse to taking risks. Natural science paradigms of research destroy hermeneutic strands of inquiry.

31 The Future? 2 THE DREAM Social scientists get off their knees and use their critical faculties to reject the ethical industry. Sociologists reject the Faustian compact that has ensnared them. The only issue is the quality of the research: do not let the ethical tail wag the sociological dog!


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